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'New Yorker' Writer: #ThisIsNotUs Downplays History Of Racism In U.S.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville late last week and the violence that came out of it inspired some anti-racist activism on social media under the hashtag #ThisIsNotUs. Twitter users were sending messages calling for love and understanding. But the conversation soon caused some controversy, as they were met with replies like this one. People are saying this is not us. Of course it is. Refusing to grapple with that fact is how we got here in the first place.

Now, that tweet came from Jelani Cobb. He's a staff writer at The New Yorker, and he's here to talk more about it. Welcome to the program.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

CORNISH: So this idea started out as a way for people to show support. What's the problem with the sentiment?

COBB: I think the sentiment behind it is fine. But it is in a certain way exculpatory in saying that this is not us. Of course it is. You know, this is a country in which our bloodiest conflict centered on the right to own people, to sell people. We now have over 1,500 monuments and schools and roads named after the people who fought for the right to own people, to continue to own people. Maybe this is not all of who we are, certainly. But it is a vital and vibrant and dynamic stream in American history, and until we're willing to confront that, we don't really have much chance of ever getting past it.

CORNISH: So what to your mind makes more sense to do instead? I mean you're kind of leaving people in a tough place there.

COBB: I think that part of the response is fairly simple, from the idea of this is not us to the idea of this is not who we want to be because that implies a certain degree of responsibility. And then I think that there's, you know, a whole array of things that people should do, from the anti-racist activities of the people who were counter-demonstrating.

One of the things I think is most important in this particular area that we're at now is simply the regard and respect for American institutions that I think has, you know, been bruised by some of what we've seen politically in the last year. But we can't do any of those things if we start from a kind of idea that we will remove ourselves from the history that produced this moment.

CORNISH: Given what you've said, what's your reaction to President Trump's statement today? I mean he said outright racism is evil and that those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs. And he went on to note the KKK, neo-Nazi and white supremacists.

COBB: I thought the language of what he had to say was fine. I think the frustration comes with the fact that it took such a great, inordinate amount of pressure for him to make that statement. And so it then becomes a question of wondering, you know, is this sincere, or is this simply kind of political performance to make the current storm of criticism dissipate?

CORNISH: Finally, you've said that what happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of this conflict between racial supremacists and civic society. But you call it a tragic preface to more of the same. What do you mean by that?

COBB: I think that these forces feel victorious, you know, when we saw them marching in large numbers with torches and then, the following day, marching in a kind of regimented form through the city of Charlottesville. What comes out of that I think is a feeling of invulnerability and having come out of the woodwork and having seen others of like minds. Would they then be content to just go back to making racial humor on the Internet? I don't think that will happen. I think that we're likely to see them want to do bigger things, more spectacular things, things that will inject themselves even further into American consciousness. And they now likely feel that they are in a position to do that.

CORNISH: Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of "The Substance Of Hope: Barack Obama And The Paradox Of Progress." Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

COBB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.